In Japan’s Countryside, Villages Fight to Keep Tradition Alive

  • Towns struggle to find young people to continue folk customs
  • Events that tie communities together in danger of disappearing

Traditions die hard in the small mountain town of Kanegasaki, whose history includes a series of battles nearly 1,000 years ago that drove an ancestor of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to leave the area for southern Japan.

But as Japan ages and rural towns face depopulation, many unique cultural traditions are being lost. This year Kanegasaki will have to forego the centuries-old "deer dance," a prayer for a bountiful harvest and an homage to the townspeople’s ancestors.

Toshio Goto

Source: Kanagasaki Board of Education

The lead dancer, 61 years old, is suffering from back pain, and there is no one in the northern Japanese town to replace him.

"He’s still young, so I told him he’ll be all right," said Toshio Goto, 76, a representative of the Kitakata dance troupe, which performs the dance. "But he said that he can’t, so I can’t force him."

Kanegasaki’s story isn’t unique. Some 60 similar events in 20 different prefectures have been abandoned or suspended due to falling populations and aging, according to a survey by Kyodo News published in January.

The disappearance of these cultural assets is just one form of loss being suffered in Japan’s countryside, where slowly dying towns offer gifts for people who channel part of their taxes there and cheap access to abandoned homes in an effort to attract new residents and remain viable.

Read more: The tax system that diverts money to the countryside.

"The disappearance of Japanese festivals means the disappearance of communities," said Hideo Nigata, deputy executive director of the Nippon Matsuri Network, a non-profit organization that supports and networks festivals. "That’s how Japanese communities have been held together. Even if you no longer live in your town, a festival can be cause for a temporary visit."

Hiromichi Kubota, head of the intangible folk cultural properties section at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, said the health of local traditions reflects the overall health of the community. When local economies suffer, folk culture will start to disappear.

In addition to keeping communities tightly knit, folk culture plays an important role in making them resilient and helping them recover from hardship. Researchers realized this after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

"We used to think that only the people who really liked these events participated, that most people didn’t want to join," Kubota said. "But after the disaster there were many people who had lost everything who thought, ‘I at least want to join in the festival.’"

Japan has been enjoying a tourism boom recently, but few venture off the well-worn path between the urban centers of Tokyo and Osaka and Kyoto. Folk performances like the deer dance have the potential to draw more visitors to towns like Kanegasaki, but this is difficult to realize in practice.

Read more: How Chinese tourists are flocking to Japan.

Unlike other cultural assets such as Unesco World Heritage Sites, which are always on display, these performances occur only so often. Some towns also lack the infrastructure to accommodate many tourists, according to Kubota.

But for people in these communities, tourism is often a secondary concern.

The Kitakata Dance Troupe performs the deer dance in Kanegasaki, Iwate, last year.

Source: Kanagasaki Board of Education

"Any time you talk about tourism, it becomes a discussion about revenue. But more importantly, these customs connected people to the regional community, and they connected people across generations," said Hidekatsu Asari, who oversees cultural events and programs at the Kanegasaki learning center.

The challenge of keeping these traditions alive will only grow more severe as Japan’s demographic forecasts play out. Kanegasaki has a population of just under 16,000, and that is expected to drop by about 1,300 by 2025, when seniors will account for a third of the population.

Goto said he hasn’t given up on next year but he’s struggling to get Kanegasaki’s dwindling number of young people interested in the deer dance in the "age of the smartphone."

"The dancers nowadays think, ‘It’s about time to hang it up,’ but we can’t lose this," he said. "Until now, I’d been hoping there’d be someone younger who would take it up, but it seems that won’t be the case so I need to keep going one more time."

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